Puritanism and the History of Thought

 In Church History, Puritans, The Church

We frequently ponder the theological brilliance of the Puritans. There remains something spiritually satisfying and intellectually stimulating in their writings. The discourse of brilliant minds, such as Jonathan Edwards and John Bunyan, often takes the reader on a historical pilgrimage to times of great doctrinal thought. The intellect of the Puritans is inspiring. In this article, I will discuss the ways in which Puritan thought offers an example for modern Christians. 

Intellectualism and Contemporary Christianity 

In one of the most formative, although rather simple, expositions of the Christian faith, C.S. Lewis states, in Mere Christianity, that “[in becoming a Christian] you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains in all.” Ideally, the Christian utopia is not one infested with simpletons. Rather, it is one of great academic and intellectual stimulation. Christianity treasures the mind. The seemingly infinite number of doctrines and complexity of Scripture’s mysteries propel the Christian to a state of theological and intellectual exploration. There is something within the believer, regardless of one’s educational background, that vigorously urges him or her to discover the truth. This is why Lewis states that “an uneducated believer like Bunyan was able to write a book that has astonished the whole world.” In short, Christianity elevates our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.  

The study of apologetics is one example of Christian intellectual stimulation. Christians are called to “be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). The Christian must be wholly inclined to defend the faith from the Scriptures and in conventional reason. More often than not, the Christian will find him or herself using reason to make sense of the Scriptures.

The aim of this section is to point out that Christians today do not think. Really, we do not know how to think. Throughout contemporary history, the Evangelical movement has squandered the virtues of reason and scholarship. Generally, contemporary Christians have a superficial knowledge of the Scriptures. But, many today lack the ability to justify their beliefs from the perspectives of various disciplines. This article will not offer foolproof solutions to these issues. Rather, the following discourse will look to understand the intellectual heritage of the Puritans and their subsequent mark on contemporary education.  

Puritanism and Classicism

The Puritans were scholars. While rightfully understood as experts in biblical interpretation and leading proponents of Calvinism in the Americas, the Puritans did not refrain from studying natural sciences, the arts, or the humanities. Ironically resembling aspects of Catholic Scholasticism, the Puritans held the study of the classics in high regard. Henry Dunster, an established clergyman and the first president of Harvard College, vigorously defended the study of the classics against those who wished that they be excluded from the curriculum. Dunster passionately indicates that, regardless of any present heathenism, the classics astutely convey human and spiritual realitiespresented in various conversational dialogueswhich are later applied and understood under the canopy of Scripture. In a characteristically providential fashion, Puritans believed that biblical truth was interwoven in the realm of literature. 

The connection between the Puritans and that of the “pagan” writers was primarily due to similarities between the concept of the law of nature and the Gospel accounts. Also, many Puritans believed the likeness between the two was subject to the Greek and Roman plagiarization of Jewish lore. Nevertheless, the Puritans respected the classics for their lyrical eloquence and projection of truth. Increase Mather, a figurehead Puritan theologian and preacher, echoes the Puritan conviction of classicism when he states, “ the interest of Religion and good Literature, hath risen and fallen together.” 

Classicism and the Gospel 

How exactly did the Puritans employ their knowledge of classic literature? A deepened understanding of ancient Roman and Greek thought was considered an integral support for properly preaching and sharing the gospelbecause all other forms of thought hinged upon the precepts of the ancient world. Classicism provided a middle ground in discussing the beliefs of Christianity, for both the Christian and non-Christian. This way, there remains an underlying system of understanding both can build upon. It was not uncommon for the convert to bow before Christ after a convincing gospel presentation that reflected values of classical literature and was also biblically sound.  

Citations and references to the classical scholars were abundant in sermons. The classics were often quoted in order to give a congregation, who would be familiar with such literature, a different way of understanding or viewing a certain biblical point. The Puritans found themselves incorporating the work of Plutarch, Seneca, Plato, and Aristotle. Additionally, the political and social structure of Massachusetts Bay was heavily influenced by classical thought. 

Ultimately, the Puritan take on Classicism was furthered from medievalist attitudes. In that, all of society was understood to be governed as one unified organism. There was no reason to suggest that the intellectual sentiments of the day could not effectively intermix with the nature of the gospel. From this perspective, the medievalist and the Puritan would both affirm the significance of an intellectual and a theological comprehension of the gospel. Yet, the Puritans did not go as far as suggesting that the philosophical presuppositions of the ancient should be rigorously applied to every single aspect of life. Rather, they held to sola scriptura (Scripture alone) in ways that medievalists did not. 

The Puritans and Us

Contemporary theological groups have failed where the Puritans have flourished. Identifying with the tenets of Puritanism not only meant reading the Institutes and The Bondage of the Will but also delving into Virgil’s Aeneid and Plato’s Republic. Puritans understood that their theological roots were not solely founded upon the minds of the Reformation. Rather, they were reflective enough to apprehend that their theological convictions were first steeped in the philosophical principles of ancient “pagan” authors and the Jewish tradition. 

Today, we moderns fail in apprehending the importance of how history and literature have shaped and influenced the Christian tradition. The contemporary evangelical movement places a heavy emphasis on reading the theological minds of years past but falls short in promoting an adept comprehension of the classics. Although the act of intermixing aspects of classicism with the message of the gospel may create a hindrance for today’s believer, the Puritans persisted in cherishing compartments of knowledge that we neglect treasuring throughout our spiritual lives.     

Certainly, a deepened comprehension of the work of the classics does not constitute authentic Christianity. Nor does such an understanding remain a necessary prerequisite for presenting the gospel message. However, it does form a knowledgeable and intellectually relatable Christian. Modernity has certainly diluted the waters of Christian intellectualism. Through the contemporary reign of “self-help spirituality,” the Christian has traded biblical, historical, and literary forms of genuine knowledge for diluted forms of emotional stability. In this way, the Christian may find solace in the example of Puritanism.

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